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How to deal with stress at work and school

Work and school stress are common, and it’s easy to think that constant pressure is normal. The truth is, stress can have a serious impact on your mental and physical health. In this guide we look at how to deal with stress at work and school. 

There are also some good tips and tricks for building your resilience so you'll be better able to cope when pressures build up in the future. We also talk about what to do when stress spills over into depression or anxiety, and where to get help if you need it.

Note: This article is about stress, caused by things like too much work or an approaching exam. If you feel your symptoms are getting out of control, you may need help. Talk to someone you trust, like a parent/carer, teacher, school nurse or doctor.

What does stress feel like?

If you’ve done your GCSEsA-levels or Scottish highers, chances are you'll have experienced stress, particularly when it comes to exams

Stress is different to pressure though. We all face lots of pressures in life, and many (although not all) of them are unavoidable. Pressure can be caused by an upcoming exam or coursework deadline, a job interview, a presentation, or when we have to do something we don’t like, like taking an aeroplane journey if we don’t like flying.

The symptoms of stress are different for everyone

Moderate amounts of pressure can spur us on to success. But when the pressure gets too much for us to deal with, we start to feel stressed.

You might feel panicky, unable to concentrate, lose your motivation and not want to get out of bed, or experience any number of other symptoms.

Read more: What is stress? (Mind)

What’s stressing me out?

The first step in dealing with school stress is to work out what’s causing it. This is easy if it’s caused by a one-off event like an exam or an interview, but it’s sometimes harder to put your finger on the exact cause, particularly as stress is often prompted by more than one thing. When we’re experiencing stress in one area of our life, it can make other, more minor pressures harder to deal with.

However, you’ll probably have a general sense of what it’s down to, such as "too much work" or "an unrealistic deadline", and this is good enough to begin tackling it.

Read more: Causes of stress (Mind)

What can I do about it?

By far the best thing to do is to talk to someone who can help you take control – your teacher or your boss.

It can be easy to think that stress is caused by a failing on your part, or that it’s just a natural part of the job. For example, it you’ve got too much to do, it’s tempting to think this is because you’re too slow or aren’t working hard enough. This can encourage us to work unrealistically long hours, which can worsen stress by making work the centre of our lives and reducing then time we have to unwind.

Feelings of stress are your body’s way of telling you something needs to change. Things aren’t going to get better by ignoring your body. If you don’t talk to your boss, they won’t know you’re feeling overworked, which means they can’t help you. There may well be a simple solution – such as reassuring you that you’re working at an acceptable pace, offering you training, or sharing work out more evenly.

How do I avoid stress?

You may be surprised to hear it, but it is possible to control the amount of pressure in your life! Sometimes, we can avoid work-related stress by organising our time better or by not setting unrealistic expectations.

It’s easier said than done, but having some basic techniques at your disposal can help you avoid many of the stressful situations that a lot of people experience:

  • Don’t leave things to the last minute.
  • If possible, don't say "yes" whenever you’re asked to take on a new piece of work, if you feel you don't have the capacity to do it.
  • Take steps to motivate yourself and avoid procrastination.
  • Learn to plan ahead and prioritise.

That last point, learning how to prioritise, can really help you balance your workload. If you have two weeks to revise for an exam, and try to learn the whole syllabus, you’ll go into the exam hall feeling stressed and worn out. Far better to use your time to learn the most important content thoroughly.

And of course, an even better example of good planning would be to start your revision earlier and make sure you do have time to cover everything!

How do I deal with stress better?

While you should do what you can to avoid unnecessary stress, in reality, we face pressures every day, especially in our work lives. Luckily, there are lots of tools you can reach for when you start to feel stressed, as well as many ways to build up your emotionally resilience.

What's more, many employers ask how you deal with stress in job interviews, and they’ll be very impressed if you can show you have some effective techniques up your sleeve....

Talk to your friends

Having friends you can rely on when things get tough is one of the most effective ways of beating stress. Friends can advise, or just listen while you offload. Even if you’re not talking about your troubles, friends keep you feeling strong and connected at a time when you might be feeling a bit on your own – and you can do the same for them.

Eat a good diet

Making sure you have a brain-friendly diet can really help your feelings of wellbeing and help you deal with stress better:

  • Food high in protein such as eggs, cheese, nuts, fish and lean meat (meat with the fat cut off) contain amino acids, which help keep your thoughts and feelings well regulated.
  • The oily fats in things like oily fish, chicken and turkey and nuts (omega-3) are really good for your brain.
  • Drinking lots of water helps you concentrate.
  • Fruit and veg they contain the vitamins minerals we need for good mental (as well as physical) health.
  • What not to eat: Sugary food can increase anxiety and many people choose to cut it out of their diet to reduce their stress levels. The fats in biscuits and cakes are bad for your mood as well as your physical health (sorry)!

Get regular exercise

Regular exercise has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. We’re not just talking about the occasional game of footie or stroll around the park. The NHS says you need to get about 150 minutes of physical exercise every week. It doesn’t have to be a sport – you could walk, run, swim or even do some gardening (if that’s your thing) – the more varied, the better.

Find a hobby

If you don’t already, find something you enjoy doing which is completely separate from your school or work life. Ideally, take on a creative project or learn a new skill is perfect. Not only will this help take your mind off from what you’re worrying about, it will also give you a sense of purpose and something to aim for.

Practise mindfulness

Mindfulness is a way of bring your thoughts into the here and now, rather than dwelling on the worries in your life. It takes a bit of practice, but once you’ve got the hang of it, you can use mindfulness techniques to quickly reduce stress whenever it crops up. Some studies suggest that it can reduce overall stress by making you better able to cope with pressure.

Keep a balance

This won’t be the first time you hear the words "work-life balance", and it won’t be the last! That’s because it really matters. If you find yourself stressed out because you’re staying late at work, or spending long hours on schoolwork or revision, it’s time to talk to someone about how to reduce your workload or manage it better.

Take regular breaks

It’s also really important to take regular breaks throughout the day, and it’s good for your body as well as your mind. Use your breaks to do something unrelated to work, and take at least half an hour off at lunchtime. Breaks also keep you fresh and alert, making you more productive, which will help keep your stress levels down in the long term. That’s why it’s a good idea to take a few days off if all your other stress-reducing resources are failing you.

When stress becomes something more

Work-related stress often disappears once the triggers are removed. You’ve probably noticed that when you go on holiday and the pressure is suddenly off, you feel a lot more relaxed.

If you feel stressed, anxious or depressed even when there’s no obvious cause, you could be suffering from a more serious mental health problem. This can be brought about by a big change or event in your life, like starting a new job or going to university.

This doesn’t meant there’s nothing you can do. There are lots of ways of dealing with anxiety or depression, and the best thing to do is to talk to your doctor. Ask them about cognitive behavioural therapy – this is a very effective treatment for many people: it’s all about changing negative patterns of thought. If you’re going to university, there may also be a free counselling service and many student unions support students as well.

Don't forget: if things are really bad right now and you're struggling to cope, help is out there. There's always someone at Mind, ChildLine, or the Samaritans you can talk to. You don't have to deal with stress, anxiety and depression alone.

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Main imagestressed student and mental health via Freepik,